A woman I know shares, with her full permission, this story from her life:
“I’ll never forget what happened to me on the first day of Lent many years ago now. I was sitting in prayer beside my bed that morning in the darkness of the early hour, the bedroom TV screen staring blankly at the tears slowly making their way down my face. I was asking God what I needed to give up for Lent. What clutter in my life needed to be taken care of. What spring-cleaning in my soul needed to be done.
I had been unfaithful to one dear to me, and while that dear soul had long ago forgiven me, for years I had been unable to let go of the guilt that clung to me like tar. I’d gotten used to it, so I didn’t think about it all the time, it’s just when I would get quiet like this that sometimes it would rise up and make me weep. I knew intellectually that God had forgiven me, but that knowledge couldn’t penetrate the stranglehold that the guilt had on my life with God. It made me want to do anything other than sit in the silence of God’s company for very long.
So on that Ash Wednesday morning, I sat with my tears, asking God to reveal to me what I needed to give up for Lent that year, and this is what I saw: suddenly behind my closed eyes, wet with tears, I saw the image of Jesus above me, nailed to the cross above where I sat. He looked down at me with his crown of thorns and such compassion in his eyes, and then slowly he reached out his left arm and extended it down toward me where I sat in disbelief.
What happened next will perhaps sound frightening, but it wasn’t. A thin trickle of blood began to run down his arm and drip off his hand as if it was meant for me. All I remember was starting to sob as somehow the guilt I couldn’t let go of for so long was suddenly lifted up off of me. In a moment, I got into my morning shower and kept sobbing as the warm water flowed over me, for I felt profoundly washed clean. It wasn’t that Jesus was saying his pain was like a trade or a substitute for my own; it was that his blood was proof of his humanness, just like mine. Proof of God’s love in a real flesh and blood body, whose very presence understands everyone’s pain without judging it.
Those words, ‘God gave his only son’ mean God’s love came in an up-close body to help everyone have this kind of understanding and acceptance of their sins. And even them killing that body couldn’t stop the love thing from working. I never felt grieved by that guilt ever again, and that was over 18 years ago. Jesus lifted up from me that which I couldn’t lift off of myself.”
Our scriptures from our Bible’s first testament, Psalm 51 and Jeremiah 31, speak of the deep human longing we all have for knowing that we are claimed, that we belong, that we are home, despite whatever we have done or not done, which keeps us feeling separate from a true and forgiven, made right, washed clean connection with God. And this longing for us as Christians, which is named by both the psalmist and the prophet, is filled by becoming lost in God—through giving up our small self to the Love which was lifted on the cross, not as a SUBSTITUTE for our sin, but as proof of there being NOTHING that can stop Love from winning. Jesus sacrificed and gave it all because to do otherwise would be to let the distorted understanding of God (of those that were condemning him) have the last word.
In John 3:14-17 we hear Jesus speak, saying that he will be lifted up from the earth, referring to the kind of death he was to die. Not because he HAD to die in order to please a God—-whose forgiveness and love could not be meted out to us without a quid pro quo offering, but because he would rather die at the hands of humanity’s fear and ignorance, than deny the truth of how deep and steadfast God’s love is for us. One way we speak of this is to say that “Jesus died for our sins,” but he also died to honor who God was in his own life. Jesus refused to betray the incredible depth of Love that is God.
A little later in the gospel of John where this idea of Jesus being lifted up as a Love-revealer comes up again, he says to his friends, “Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”
Jesus ALLOWED himself to be lifted up into a way of living, so that the truth of God’s Love could lift from us the things we cannot find any other way to let go of, whether it’s guilt, pride, self-hate, addiction, worry, prejudice against those “others” we can’t STAND because we haven’t figured out yet the lesson they have been given to us to learn, OR our inability to let go of that nagging, never ending ache of emptiness that whispers, There’s got to be more than this, there’s just got to be more to life than this…
What is the clutter in your soul that you long to let go of this day? To be lifted free of once and for all? It’s important to name it, because not only is it burdening to YOU, but to everyone around you in your family and community who is prevented from experiencing the full love of God expressed through your unique and wonderful self.
Perhaps on a small slip of paper you can write down a word that captures the essence of this bit of “clutter”—the person or institution you can’t seem to forgive or accept as simply part of your life story, the regret you wish you could forget, the pain in your body that turns your heart into a stone of anger and jealousy. Write it down, take it out into a wooded, growing place and lift a prayer as you tear it into shreds as a way of lifting it into God’s care. Tuck it into the soil where you see new growth emerging. Visit this spot often and remember the love that longs to lift from you the things you were never meant to lift yourself in the first place.
You may find grace of the most amazing kind to be one more springtime beauty to behold this year.